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South Korea Balances Privacy, Public Health in Virus Fight

FILE - A couple wearing masks to prevent contacting the coronavirus looks at a mobile phone at Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul, South Korea, March 1, 2020.
FILE - A couple wearing masks to prevent contacting the coronavirus looks at a mobile phone at Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul, South Korea, March 1, 2020.

Digital tracing also allowed South Korea to fight the coronavirus in a more targeted way without shutting down its economy.

South Korea is one of very few countries to contain the coronavirus without resorting to mass lockdowns. So how did they do it?

At the forefront of South Korea's strategy was a rapid rollout of coronavirus testing that is widely seen as the global standard. The testing campaign has been so successful that South Korean companies are now exporting test kits across the world.

But underpinning South Korea's coronavirus success is a sweeping web of digital surveillance that lawmakers have reinforced specifically to contain epidemics.

Burned by the previous MERS virus outbreak, which killed 39 South Koreans, lawmakers in 2015 loosened digital privacy laws. During outbreaks, authorities now have access to personal data without needing court approval. And there is lots of it, since South Korea is one of the world's most-wired countries.

The data – including cell phone, GPS, and bank records, along with closed-circuit TV footage – supercharged South Korea's attempts to locate the path of individual coronavirus infections, as well as inform and isolate those exposed.

Digital tracing also allowed South Korea to fight the coronavirus in a more targeted way without shutting down its economy. Even at the height of the outbreak, life in South Korea has never felt "locked down” as in many other parts of the world.

As a result, more South Koreans have been able to keep their jobs, leave their homes to shop or eat at restaurants, and in recent elections, even vote at the highest rate in nearly three decades.

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Effectively, South Koreans may have given up a degree of digital privacy, but they have kept what some see as more fundamental freedoms.

Still, as in other countries that have expanded digital surveillance to deal with Covid-19, there are concerns about whether South Korea is striking the right balance between public safety and personal privacy.

Some accuse South Korean officials of disclosing too many personal details about confirmed coronavirus patients. There are also questions about how long the expanded digital surveillance will last, since the law is vague on that point and the coronavirus may be around for years.

In other words: Digital tracing campaigns like the one employed by South Korea may help contain the coronavirus, but they risk reshaping the way governments around the world interact with personal data during emergencies.

Movements, means, contacts

South Korea's digital tracing efforts have been aided by the country's national registration system. Under the system, phone companies must require all customers to provide their real names and national identification numbers.

When combined with the new surveillance powers, the data allow health officials to quickly determine the movements, means of transportation, and recent contacts of confirmed and suspected coronavirus patients.

As a result, authorities can quickly test and isolate those who have been exposed to the virus. It also allows central and local governments to send detailed reports – mostly in the form of non-optional, emergency text messages – to those who live or have visited nearby.

Watch Bill Gallo's report from Seoul.

"The strategy has been very efficient in terms of public health,” says Han Sang-hee, a law professor at Seoul's Konkuk University. "But it is somewhat lacking when it comes to privacy and the protection of personal information.”

Too much info?

Though the reports do not include names, online snoops have tried to identify individuals using other provided details, such as neighborhood of residence, age, gender, and nationality.

Many of the public reports have revealed private and potentially embarrassing information, such as where patients attended religious services, plastic surgery clinics, or sexual harassment classes.

After details were released on South Korea's third coronavirus patient, social media users tried to connect the dots, speculating that the person was having an affair. There were also attempts to guess the individual's identity.

"The authorities are currently providing more information than is necessary to stop the spread of the disease, leading to a violation of privacy and human rights of an infected person,” said South Korea's National Human Rights Commission, an independent but publicly funded rights monitor.

The rights group cited a February survey suggesting South Koreans were less worried about contracting COVID-19 than they were about the criticism they might receive from their community if they were infected.

"The disclosure of specific travel logs of all patients could even dissuade those with symptoms from coming forward to be tested,” the commission said.

Authorities have defended their approach, pointing out they set up a system whereby confirmed patients can file a complaint if they feel the reports are too revealing.

South Korean authorities also insist the data is secure and the collection is legal. Only a specified number of epidemiological investigators, they say, have access to anyone's personal information.

Long-term powers?

But it's not clear how long the expanded surveillance powers will last.

Although the law intends for it to be temporary, South Korean officials now concede they are prepared for a long-term battle against the coronavirus. Some health experts estimate it could take years to defeat the disease.

"The concern, of course, is that once a government has data, they never want to give it up,” says Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

That may not be a huge worry in democratic South Korea, where the public has repeatedly shown it is capable of holding accountable leaders who are seen as abusing their power.

Still, Robertson says Seoul should place an expiration date on its expanded surveillance powers, after which the government would need to ask lawmakers for an extension.

"Democratic governments and countries like South Korea ... could set as a model that, (even though) we recognize that these urgent times may require this kind of action, when we go back to a normal time, we will not do this,” he says.

Autocratic governments across the world have already used the coronavirus to grab further power – monitoring and restricting free speech, arresting dissidents, and preventing freedom of movement – often with very little resistance.

FILE - A woman wearing a face mask to help protect against the spread of the new coronavirus casts a vote for the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

Advancing democracy

But South Korean authorities say the success of their response helped advance the cause of democracy in last week's parliamentary elections. Voters felt safe enough to turn out at a rate of 66 percent – the highest level in 28 years.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose approval rating had been sagging as recently as two months ago, campaigned heavily on his successful COVID-19 response. Voters apparently approved, giving his ruling party a landslide win.

The results showed it is possible not only to move ahead with elections during the pandemic, but that political leaders could receive a boost if they are perceived as having effectively dealt with the virus and kept people safe.

"I think (South Korea's approach) makes more sense to limit personal freedoms involving privacy," said Seoul resident Kim Jae-gyu, "rather than to limit everyone's freedom, like if things were locked down."